Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The special one: Australia, Ireland and the US working visa fight

After a lobbying campaign, Australia will retain exclusive access to a special visa allowing people to work in the US.

Photo: Anete Lūsiņa/ Flickr
Photo: Anete Lūsiņa/ Flickr

Christopher Meyer, Britain’s ambassador to Washington (1997 – 2003), observed that the United States had one special relationship, and that was with Ireland. The large and politically active Irish diaspora living in America make the relationship special.

Australia’s strategy of urging its congressional friends to drag their heels had seen off the Irish threat.

Australia has tested Dublin’s specialness in defence of its exclusive use of the E3 nonimmigrant visa. Between 2005 and today, Australia has been the sole beneficiary of this class of US visa. A threatened end to that monopoly came when Ireland tried to gain access to the E3. (South Korea also covets the E3, though their campaign pales in comparison to Ireland’s efforts.)

Lessons can be learned from Ireland’s efforts and Australia’s defence of the E3 visa.

The E3 visa emerged from a fight between Congress and the executive branch over control of US visas. Following the successful conclusion of the US–Singapore free trade agreement in 2003, Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (Republican-Wisconsin) and John Conyers (Democrat-Michigan), the ranking members on the House Judiciary committee, announced that no free trade agreements that included human mobility provisions would be approved. This was sorely felt by the Australian government and diplomats who at the time were busy negotiating the free trade agreement with Washington.

In response, working closely with both the Senate and House Judiciary committees, Australia pushed for the creation of a new class of visa, the E3. It is a two-year nonimmigrant visa with no restrictions on work or renewal, and Congress approved 10,500 slots for Australia alone. Virtually no country – not even Ireland ­– has had exclusive access to a US visa. It was signed into law in May 2005, one year after the signing of Australia-US free trade agreement.

Ireland has long wanted in on the E3 visa. In 2013, Democratic Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Chuck Schumer, at Ireland’s urging, introduced an amendment extending the E3 visa to Irish citizens. Durbin noted the amendment recognised “… the special relationship between the United States and Ireland.” In 2015 House Judiciary chairman Sensenbrenner introduced a bill that would allocate unused E3 visa slots to Ireland. That bill was never voted upon.

Last year, Dublin ramped up its approach to lobbying Congress.

Irish politician John Deasy took up the appointment as “Irish Government Envoy to [the] United States Congress” while retaining his seat in the Irish Dail. His task was to bring an Irish voice to US immigration issues. Travelling between the two capitals, Deasy worked the halls of Congress advocating that Ireland be granted admittance to the E3 club. He came to Washington as a sitting legislator, and with the imprimatur of Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Deasy was no neophyte to Congress, however, having spent the early 1990’s as a staff member in both the US House and Senate.

The first version of the E3 bill to emerge out of the House Judiciary committee simply gave Ireland equal use of the visa. This would have put Australia and Ireland on a level playing field. Not wanting to lose priority, Australia’s ambassador Joe Hockey and the embassy’s congressional liaison team successfully advocated for a change in the language of the bill. They reverted to a version of the 2015 legislation that would allocate Australia’s unused visa slots to Ireland.

Having passed the House by voice vote, the bill went to the Senate, where it would easily pass if voted upon. In an effort to prevent that from happening, Australia successfully lobbied friendly senators (including Congressional Friends of Australia Caucus Senator Roy Blunt) to put a hold on the vote. In the meantime, Australia sought a promise from the Trump administration to give greater flexibility the E3 application process. (The rules in the Senate allow members to put a hold on pending motions, thus preventing a vote. A hold may be anonymous.) One Senate hold came, not from Australia’s friends, but rather from Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson who advocated for South Korea’s inclusion on the E3.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians rallied members to lobby on Ireland’s behalf. Outgoing Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, unsuccessfully advocated extending the E3 to the Irish. By the end, the 115th Congress became mired in a battle over building a border wall.

Australia’s strategy of urging its congressional friends to drag their heels had seen off the Irish threat. What the new Congress will do remains to be seen, however, look for both Ireland and South Korea to renew their efforts.

While Ireland makes claim to a special relationship with the US on the back of the large Irish-American diaspora, Australia trades romanticism for strategic planning and hard-nosed bargaining. Australia succeeds in the US Congress because of a robust defence bond, strong interpersonal relationships, and a deep understanding of how the legislative body works.

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